Rick Geary, Blanche Goes to Hollywood (Dark Horse, October 1993).
Rick Geary, that perennially underrated cartoonist, is currently best known for his scrupulously accurate historical comics, particularly his NBM Treasury of Victorian Murder books (including The Borden Tragedy , The Mystery of Mary Rogers  and The Murder of Abraham Lincoln ) and other non-fiction graphic novels like the recent J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography (Hill and Wang, 2008). Personally, though, I like Geary's work best when he mixes history with his own goofy made-up stories, as in his terrific series of comics starring Blanche Womack, a talented pianist who bustles her way through the various art movements and epochal events of the early 20th century.
Geary's written and drawn three Blanche comics to date (and I'm glad to hear that Dark Horse will collect all three in hardcover, due in early 2009). In Blanche Goes to New York (Dark Horse, 1992), the titular heroine poses for a nude portrait (scandalous!), outrages an audience by playing Schoenberg, and barely escapes from a Cthulhuesque monster, while in Blanche Goes to Paris (Headless Shakespeare Press, 2001), she helps Picasso and Erik Satie stage a modernist opera at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and gets hit on by Ernest Hemingway. My favorite is Blanche Goes to Hollywood (Dark Horse, 1993), which chronicle Blanche's time in Los Angeles in 1916, a first-hand observer to the transition of Hollywood from orange groves to movie studios. Blanche's adventure begins with her new job as the head of the Music Department at the fictional Art-Tone Pictures--films remained silent until the mid-'20s, but studios used live music to put actors in the right moods for their pantomime performances--and climaxes with a visit to the massive Intolerance set and a runaway balloon ride with director D.W. Griffith himself.
There are two central reasons why Blanche Goes to Hollywood is my favorite Blanche tale. I'm a film fan, and I also teach cinema history, so naturally I'm a sucker for Geary's witty and accurate depictions of locales like Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and events like the Industrial Workers of the World Hollywood labor protests. Here's Geary's rendition of an early editing suite:
Geary's absolutely right about the female "Cutting Room staff"--the early studio heads considered editing a piecemeal grunt job they could farm out to low-paid female employees, until they realized (like Blanche did) the importance of editing in creating a film's narrative space and dramatic continuity. On the detail level, I'm also charmed that Geary gets the equipment right: note the moviolas installed horizontally on the tabletops, and the rectangle with bumps on it near Arlette's left hand, which is a little plate where the editor pushes the sprocket holes of the filmstrip onto the bumps to hold the film steady while cutting.
Some of the best gags and ironies in the story are related to the craft of editing. Later in the comic, a workers' march sponsored by the Wobblies is attacked by studio security "goons" and police officers armed with high-pressure water hoses, and Blanche's friend Cam, an idealistic fire-brand of a Communist, films the violence:
This footage eventually travels with Cam to Paris, where he screens it for "a band of Russian exiles who wish to overthrow their Tzar." Geary's making a dry, esoteric joke here; he's rewriting history by insinuating that Cam and Blanche were the true inventors of Soviet montage (or what film scholar David Bordwell calls "historical-materialist narration"), a form of editing and storytelling associated with 1920s Russian directors like Lev Kuleshov, Aleksandr Dovzhenko and, most famously, Sergei Eisenstein. Geary knows his film history cold, and references, allusions and winks like these percolate throughout the comic.
The second reason I like Blanche Goes to Hollywood so much is that the subject matter is a perfect fit for Geary's style. For various reasons--the need to develop visual shortcuts that ease the tedium of drawing the same characters over and over again, and the marketing of one's style as an identifiable "brand"--most cartoonists develop a style and stick to it across the trajectory of their careers. (I'm reminded here of Chris Ware's little cartoon self mapping out a few seconds of Rusty Brown's life as days and weeks go by in Ware's real life.) In most cases, we can't talk about cartoonists having artistic "periods" as we discuss, say, the profound shifts between Picasso's Blue and Rose periods. There are exceptions: Kirby evolves from a Golden Age rubberiness to a Silver Age Sinnott-inked realism to a late-career square-fingered Cubism. But most comics artists settle into a style, and then refine that style for artistic (and sometimes commercial) effect.
Geary's style has changed less over the years than any other cartoonist I know. His art in an early mini-comic like Von Stroheim Presents (1981) is identical to the Blanche books and to the more recent Murder series. I like Geary's style, but it's not a perfect fit for all subjects and all milieus. His people have adorable, exaggerated faces and fingers like rounded sausages, and his mise-en-scene alternates between white space and wiggly lines that lightly delineate shadows; his style is open and inviting rather than sinister and moody, so the moments of Lovecraftian menace in Blanche Goes to New York aren't exactly Graham Ingles. But Hollywood circa 1916 is bright, sunny, wide-open, and a perfect fit with Geary's art. At one point in Blanche Goes to Hollywood, Griffith invites Blanche to watch some rushes for Intolerance, and Blanche experiences an epiphany:
While looking at these panels, I'm struck by how the stark contrast between the darkness of the screening room and the open, bright light of the projector is so beautifully captured by Geary's style. Geary wants to time-travel back to early Hollywood, and his style transports readers there. He elevates our spirits, like music.
Runner-Up: Kim and Simon Deitch, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Fantagraphics, 1993). Another great comic about early Hollywood. Boulevard was originally published in Raw (Volume 2, #3, 1991), and reprinted (with more "Mishkin Saga" stories) in Pantheon's The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2002), but the Fantagraphics version is the only one that's a stand-alone comic book.